Ski touring in the Alps is unique in that the extensive system of huts allows for travel with very light packs. The skiing is therefore easier and more fun. The light packs also allow us to travel in terrain that would be much too difficult and dangerous with heavy overnight gear. Therefore to make this high mountain traverse both more fun and safe we must travel light.
As you assemble your gear, "go light" whenever the opportunity presents itself. In the end your full pack should weigh no more than about 20 lbs. Take a pack of that weight out to your local ski area and you will instantly see the value of a light load.
light as is possible is especially important if you are anything but an
expert skier. You don't want to be the person which holds back the entire
group and if extra weight is carried the chances of that are increased.
In the spring, the weather in the mountains can do anything, from blazing hot sunshine to blizzard conditions. We need to prepare for it all.
Either Randonée or Nordic equipment is suitable for the this tour, though the vast majority of skiers will be happier on Randonée. Whatever type of gear you use you should be able to ski in difficult snow with good speed control in tight confines. The track we follow is occasionally exposed and solid side slipping skills are essential.
Rental gear can be difficult to find outside of the main touring centers of the Alps (Chamonix and Zermatt). Unless you plan on being in one of these towns before and after your trip, you should plan on bringing everything with you from home.
Ski Boots - Randonée or Nordic.
Randonnée - There are a range of good boots on the market. Generally, the lighter boots are more comfortable for walking, while the heavier boots are not quite so comfortable but provide better skiing control.
Nordic - Scarpa, Crispi, Garmont are all excellent. You will probably find a better selection of Nordic boots in the States than you will in Europe. Telemarking, while gaining popularity, is still not nearly as popular as it is in the US. If you use Nordic gear be sure your boot crampons can be fitted to your boots.
Boot liners - Many boot manufacturers are offering some sort of 'thermo-fit" liner with boots as "standard equipment". This is great and helps improve fit and warmth, while reducing weight. For those that don't you might want to consider using a custom liner. These liners are heated and then moulded to your foot and boot for a perfect fit. Kathy, who often has boot fitting problems, has a pair in her randonnée boots and describes the quality of fit as “unbelievable!”.
Custom footbeds - Custom foot beds, or simply higher quality replacements can help tremendously with fitting, comfort and ski control.
Socks - Generally you will want to fit your boots with one medium sock, or perhaps a liner sock and a medium sock. If your boots are too loose you will lose skiing control. Bring a spare change.
Hut slippers - The huts have a selection of slippers, but if you prefer to bring your own that's fine. Be sure they are very light and compact.
Pants - Good pants are versatile, offering protection from bd weather and wind but are not too hot when the sum shines.
Snow/Wind Pants - You will need something for truly bad weather. A light weight Gore-tex or other water resistant but breathable layer is your best bet. Be sure you can get them on over your ski boots. The lighter the better. Avoid pants with suspenders as they are much more complicated to get into “on the fly”.
Snow/Wind Jacket - For ski tours we have been moving away from truly water proof fabrics and using water repellent windproof finish fabrics commonly called "soft shell" in the latest marketing hype. Though you might get a bit wet in the rain, nearly all the time that it precipitates, it comes as snow. Of course Gore-tex works well, but some of the more breathable fabrics have a larger comfort range. Again, go for extreme lightweight. Be sure your jacket has a good hood!
Long Underwear Tops - Very light synthetic.
Long Underwear Bottoms - (optional) Light synthetic for higher climbs of inclement weather. With the climbing pants described above and a shell, there is no need for long underwear bottoms. This is a luxury item some folks use in the huts. Mark usually does not bring any.
Light fleece shirt - Something about the weight of Polartec 100, (heavy synthetic underwear).
Light weight second layer - A "Primaloft" layer, such as Patagonia's "Puffball" pull-over is perfect.
Light weight T-shirt - We like to bring a light and comfortable shirt to change once we get to the huts. It is nice to get out of your sweaty long underwear tops. Most of the huts sell their own T-shirts, usually with a nice drawing of the hut on it. If you what to save a bit of weight, buy a hut shirt!
Thin Gloves - Most of the time you will be comfortable with a pair of simple "WindStopper" gloves.
Warmer gloves - When the temperature drops you will want a somewhat warmer pair of gloves. The best solution is a very light pair of nylon insulated ski gloves. The Marmot Randonnée glove is a good example. Gloves made for climbing or with much leather are generally too heavy. Mittens are not recommended.
Ear band -
Warm Hat or Balaclava -
Neck Gaiter - We use a French invention called a "Buff". Its a light stretchy tube you can wear in at least a dozen different ways.
Sun hat - A baseball cap works well. This is also useful in keeping snow off your face when it is coming more or less straight down.
Hut Slippers - While the huts do have a small selection of loaner shoes, it is best if you bring your own slippers. Light and compact.
Around-town clothes and shoes - Bring a swimsuit for the hotel sauna!
Skis - Nordic or Randonnée. Skis seem to get fatter and fatter, and better and better. Increases in torsional stiffness, better bindings and beefier boots have allowed skis to grow in width and still offer reasonable edge-grip on hard snow. For ski touring in the Alps, you are generally better off with a wide ski rather than a narrow one. The most difficult snow conditions we encounter are more likely to involve mush, breakable crust or other unpleasantness that a wider ski will float over.
Ski Bindings - For randonnée skis our favorite bindings are the Fritschi Diamir. The Fritschi is much easier to use than the others, and this is what we recommend for most skiers. If you really want to shave those ounces off your skis, then the new Dynafit TLT Tri-Step bindings or the Dynafit Tourlite Tech might be a good choice. They are much harder to use, however and require a high tolerance for fiddling. If you use the Dynafit binding you must be sure to use compatible boots.
Ski Crampons - Required for both Randonée and Nordic systems. You will need to equip your skis with removable crampons, also known as harscheisen or couteaux. For some Nordic setups they may be difficult to find. All modern randonnée bindings have ski crampons designed specifically for that binding.
Ski brakes - We recommend ski brakes as opposed to runaway straps, at least for the Diamir bindings. Brakes are quicker to use than straps, are somewhat safer in avalanche terrain, and reduce the odds of a ski getting away from you when putting them on or taking off on steep terrain.
Ski Skins - There are a number of great skins on the market these days. Ascension (now part of Black Diamond) skins glide and grip very, and have superb adhesive, but they are heavy and bulky. For wide skins (70mm or more) you generally don't need the tail hook. Skins should be shaped to fit shaped skis, narrow in the middle and wider at the tips and tails. For our skis, which are a wide 115mm in the tip, we buy about 95 mm skins and trim them to fit.
Ski Poles - A two section pole can be useful for touring, allowing you to shorten them up for downhill skiing and lengthen them out for long sections of poling or skating.
Ski Strap - A simple strap to hold your skis together when carried on your pack or over a shoulder can be handy. Get it long enough to go around your poles as well.
Ice Axe- Light is most definitely right! We have a pair of Camp XLA210 axes, extremely light at something around 8 ounces each. Mark's is 50 cm and Kathy's 45cm. The Cassin Ghost is another very light axe. These tools have aluminum heads and are well suited for ski touring. They are, however not so good for summer climbing. For a more versatile axe consider the 53 cm Grivel Air-Tech Evolution. Suunto USA in California imports Grivel equipment.
Boot Crampons - Needed for everyone. You will need boot crampons for some of the steeper ascents we make. The best crampons for this type of intermittent use are made of aluminum. Aluminum crampons are not as durable as steel, and they are not great on real ice climbing, but the weight savings are considerable. They are perfectly adapted to ski mountaineering. We strongly recommend purchasing aluminum crampons.
Climbing Harness - A lightweight simple harness is ideal. A belay loop is a good idea, as are adjustable leg loops.
Locking Carabiner - Bring a single locking carabiner. A simple locking "D" is fine.
Avalanche Transceiver - We supply avalanche transceivers but if you own a single frequency 457 kHz transceiver you should bring it. If you are considering buying a new beacon, our current favorite is the Mammut Barryvox, thought the new Pieps 3-antenna beacon also looks good, and the BCA Tracker is still a good choice, though the harness is poorly designed. A single set of fresh batteries will easily last the tour. (Actually they should last a whole season, if you don't do a lot of searching.)
Shovel - We also supply shovels, but again, if you own a very lightweight shovel, you should bring it as well.
Pack - A simple and lightweight pack with a capacity of about 35 liters (2100 cubic inches) is recommended. Ski attachments are very useful. We strongly advise against bring a pack larger than 40 liters. The large size weighs more, but perhaps more important does not keep the packs weight close to the body as well as a smaller pack, making skiing much harder. A good 35 liter pack weighs about 2 lbs.
Food - Breakfasts and dinners are eaten in town or in the huts. You can have the hut make you a sack lunch as well (they will charge you for it). If you have a special snack food you can't live without, you most definitely should bring some of that with you though remember to keep it light. We recommend getting lunches from the huts. Some of the huts cater to vegetarians (the normal dinner usually includes some meat). If you would like to go veggie, please tell us so we can make our request to the guardian.
Water bottle or Thermos - A pint Thermos is a nice luxury on a stormy day. For most folks, one liter of fluid is enough for the trail. We believe in doing most of our hydrating in the huts, at the beginning and end of the day. Kathy and I normally bring only a single half-liter thermos each, and it is enough for us.
Head lamp - For a tour such as this we like to use a lightweight Petzl Tikka. These headlamps use the new LED technology that gets many hours of light from a single set of batteries. If you bring one of these lights one new set of batteries at the start will last the entire tour. Be careful it does not turn on inside your pack!
Pocket knife - Keep it simple and light. The Victorinox Spartan model is our favorite.
Repair kit - If your ski setup, boots or bindings require any particular odds and ends. Don't bother bringing a Leatherman or complicated repair materials. We carry a repair kit as well.
Blister kit - Moleskin, athletic tape. Spenco Second Skin or Compeed is well worth the price.
Sun Glasses - With 100% UV protection. We like to bring sunglasses that permit us to switch from amber lenses (better for flat light) to darker lenses for sunny days. The Cébé Athlon or the Julbo Relex are examples of this type of sunglass.
Ski Goggles - For nasty weather.
Sunscreen - Look for as small a container as possible, or decant into a smaller container. There is no point in carrying a month's worth of cream on a 7 day trip. We try to use sun screen of at least an SPF of 40.
Toiletries - Here again, try to minimize, for instance look for those small tubes of toothpaste, or simply don't bring any toothpaste up to the huts.
Ear Plugs - For noisy huts.
Sleeping Sacks - (Optional) These are very light simple silk bags. We have loaners you are welcome to use (we wash them after every trip). Or you can bring your own, or purchase one from the first hut.
Camera and film - (optional, of course) It is very helpful to have a camera that can be hung around the neck, attached to the pack, or stuffed in a pocket so that it is handy, but doesn't interfere with your skiing. Please don't carry your camera inside you pack. Getting it out every time you want pictures not only discourages taking them but also makes the whole group have to wait extra time for you.
Very small digital cameras are great, but you might want to consider bringing an extra battery and a large-capacity memory card.
Duffel - Small duffel for leaving gear in hotels, etc.
Passport, or photocopy - We prefer to leave our passports, plane tickets, etc. safely in the lowlands and carry only a photocopy on the tour. But some folks feel naked without it, and for them it is best to carry it.
Money - We usually use ATM cards to supply us with cash. Most hotels, shops and restaurants readily accept credit cards, though the huts typically do not. Bring about 20 Euros per night for drinks and other treats in the huts. If you plan on buying lunch, throw a bit more in.
Maps - Optional. We, of course, will carry the necessary maps, but if you are the sort of person who likes to follow along on the map you might want to carry one. The easiest way to obtain a map of the area is to wait until you get there and buy one of the Kompass brand or Freitag & Berndt maps.
Cosley & Mark Houston
AMGA Certified • SNGM members
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